The Affectionate, Peace-Loving Manatee

Article excerpt

When the imaginative sailors who followed Christopher Columbus to America brought back tales of swimming and floating "mermaids," what they actually saw were manatees. Manatees are massive creatures that live in sheltered, slow-moving waters off the coast of Florida, East Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America. The ones in Florida are West Indian manatees, which can switch back and forth from salt water to fresh water. They don't look anything like the mythical mermaid, but their family name is still Sirenia, which means "mermaid" in Spanish . Manatees have light to dark gray skin and are almost hairless. Their front legs are paddle-shaped and are used as flippers, as is their rounded tail. The manatee's nearest relative is the elephant, and the aquatic mammals have retained their toenails and their sense of smell. They hear better than they see and sometimes bump into objects, especially in murky water. The only aquatic herbivores, manatees eat about 100 pounds a day of seaweed and other water plants, which is why they are popularly known as "sea cows. …